City Commission votes 4-1 to offer her 90 more days of paid leave if she agrees to waive potential of legal recourse
On a 4-1 vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission agreed to ask that City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini tender her resignation in writing by 5 p.m. on Jan. 15 to and then stay on paid administrative leave another 90 days, until April 15.
If Nadalini does not provide that letter of resignation, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch’s motion made clear, the City Commission will terminate Nadalini’s employment on Jan. 16.
The motion also called for Nadalini to provide a general release of all legal claims against the city regarding her termination after 33 years of employment — “including a commitment not to sue,” as City Attorney Robert Fournier put it.
Nadalini has served as city auditor and clerk since February 2010, city Human Resources Department Director Stacie Mason pointed out.
Only Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie argued against the steps Fournier said he proposed after consulting with Mason, to resolve the situation of Nadalini’s employment status.
Fournier explained to the commissioners that he also had spoken four times on the telephone with a Tampa attorney representing Nadalini, whom the commissioners voted to put on paid administrative leave on Dec. 3, 2018. The action followed a $30,000 investigation into Nadalini’s alleged verbal abuse of employees in her office and her alleged retaliations against workers for actions she considered affronts, based on the investigation conducted by a two-attorney team with the Sarasota office of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.
The commission authorized the investigation in late August after receiving a number of anonymous reports by city employees about Nadalini’s alleged actions. Those reports came in response to a commission request for comments on the three City Charter officials prior to the board’s evaluations of those officials earlier this year. Along with the city auditor and clerk, the city manager and city attorney are Charter officials.
During the Jan. 7 City Commission meeting, Fournier talked of the “significant risk of exposure” for the city in terms of legal liability, based on the investigation. Not only were the employees who spoke with the Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick attorneys current or past members of the staff of the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk, he told the commissioners, but “they’re city employees; they’re your employees.”
Fournier characterized the Shumaker Loop findings as “highly credible.”
Although the law firm team and Mason both gave Nadalini opportunities to address the allegations and the findings of the investigation, Nadalini declined to do so. During the commission’s regular meeting on Jan. 7, Mason provided the commissioners copies of a letter she had sent Nadalini, dated Dec. 12, advising her of the opportunity to speak to the commissioners on Jan. 7. Mason noted that Nadalini also had chosen not to talk with the investigative team.
Furthermore, Nadalini had not taken the opportunity afforded her to respond in writing to the allegations made against her, Mason added. “As of this date and time, I have not received any information … either verbal or in writing …”
Commissioner Freeland Eddie was adamant on Dec. 3, 2018, when the board discussed the Shumaker Loop report, that she wanted to hear from Nadalini about deciding how to proceed on the issues.
On Dec. 3, Nadalini told the commissioners, “Obviously, I’ve read the report, and I’m certainly not pleased to hear of some of the comments.” She continued, “I have the utmost respect for the employees,” noting that she has known a number of them for years. “Many of [the workers in the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office] are great employees. … I have the utmost respect for all of those employees.”
Fournier said that until Jan. 7, he had expected Nadalini and her labor and employment attorney, Robert F. McKee, at least would be present during the meeting that afternoon. McKee advised him otherwise during their latest telephone conversation, which was conducted that morning, Fournier added.
Considering all the factors
In explaining how he came to his proposal for a motion for the board’s consideration that day, Fournier talked about his discussions with McKee. As a Charter official, Nadalini has a contract with the city that allows two means of her release from employment, Fournier continued: The City Commission could provide written notice of the termination of her contract, effective on a specific date; or it could request that she resign. “From Mrs. Nadalini’s standpoint, it would be preferable to be able to say … she resigned,” Fournier added — that the City Commission had “enough regard for her tenure and her abilities” to allow her to do so instead of terminating her contract. “There is less of a negative implication with [her resignation].”
Fournier pointed out, “She is a 33-year employee who started her professional career here … and worked her way up to be appointed as one of three Charter officials [and has dealt] with a good deal of responsibility and associated stress” for the past nine years.
(Mason did note at one point that, as an employee of more than 30 years with the city, Nadalini is “eligible for normal retirement under the general pension plan of the City of Sarasota.”)
Additionally, Fournier explained that Nadalini’s contract says that if the commission asks her to resign, she is entitled to a lump-sum payment equal to six months of her salary. If she resigns voluntarily, he said, she would not be entitled to that. “I don’t think anyone under similar circumstances is just going to walk away from that type of a severance payment.”
After Nadalini won a “Satisfactory” rating from the five commissioners during her evaluation this year, her salary rose to $181,493.94, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader.
Fournier also noted on Jan. 7, “I don’t have any assurance from Mrs. Nadalini’s general counsel that [his proposed] terms and conditions are acceptable,” even though he had discussed them with McKee.
Fournier pointed out that the extra period of paid leave would enable Nadalini to answer any questions that might come up regarding the work of the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk and provide information that could be useful in recruiting a new clerk.
On Dec. 3, the commission appointed Deputy City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs interim auditor and clerk.
Mayor Liz Alpert said the recommendation to keep Nadalini on paid leave for another 90 days “makes perfect sense [because she has] so much institutional knowledge.”
Commissioner Freeland Eddie said she felt it seemed hypocritical to offer Nadalini that option at the same time Fournier and Mason were recommending Nadalini have no further contact with staff at City Hall. (Fournier suggested Nadalini be given 24 hours to respond by telephone to any questions from City Manager Tom Barwin, Mason or himself while she remained on the extended leave.)
When Eddie continued to question that part of the proposal, Fournier finally said, “I think I’ve done my best to explain it.”
Freeland Eddie then pointed out that the investigation found Nadalini had performed the duties of her office competently. Referring to the discrepancies between past and current employees’ comments about Nadalini’s own work ethic and her treatment of them, Freeland Eddie said, “There’s this schizophrenia, for lack of a better word.”
At one point, when Freeland Eddie complained that it was not usually up to the commission to handle Human Resources Department issues, Commissioner Willie Shaw responded, “I respectfully disagree …” The City Charter, he emphasized, makes it clear that the three Charter employees “serve at the pleasure of this commission.” The board has handled the termination of Charter officials on more than one occasion, he added, having served the longest of the current commissioners.
And even though Nadalini had performed the duties of her office “above the level of expectation,” Shaw said, one of his major concerns was potential legal liability for the city if the commission continued to employ her.
Shaw also talked of his personal anguish over the situation, pointing out of Nadalini, “She’s worked her way from the bottom to the top. She holds the highest position of any black person in the county that’s not elected.”
Shaw further voiced vexation over comments about race that he said had been interjected into the debate. “Let’s leave that out of this. … [This discussion] has so many dark sides to it that it p…es me right off.”
“This situation that we find ourselves in is really unfortunate,” Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch said. However, she, too, referenced the in-depth investigation by the Shumaker Loop attorneys.
Commissioner Hagen Brody talked of the help Nadalini had given him after he was elected to the commission in May 2019, including providing him “a lot of institutional information.” He added that he considers her a friend. Nonetheless, he continued, the Shumaker Loop team had corroborated employee allegations against Nadalini that arose during the evaluations process in the spring. He noted that the law firm has “impeccable credentials.”
Four people addressed the board before the members took their vote. Long-time Newtown community leader Barbara Langston said, “Commissioners, this is the hard part of this job that you have to do.” Referring to the allegations against Nadalini, Langston added, “No employee of the city should work in a place that’s in turmoil, [and none] should be afraid to speak out for fear of retribution or termination.”
Conversely, former City and County Commissioner Carolyn Mason said she had known Nadalini for more than 30 years. “I know her to be a task master. I know her to be a perfectionist.”
Yet, having sat on their side of the dais, Mason told the city commissioners, “I didn’t come here today to alter your decision.”